Queen’s breakthrough cancer discovery
Researchers at Queen’s have made an important discovery which could impact substantially on treatments available for women at high risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
The new discovery by researchers in Queen’s Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB) may mean women affected with BRCA1 could use drugs, which are already available, to reduce their risk of developing the disease, rather than undergo irreversible surgery. In turn, such treatments would open up the possibility of some of these women, who might otherwise have an oophorectomy, still being able to have children.
Currently around one in 1,000 women in the UK carry the BRCA1 mutation - the same condition that prompted well-known actress Angelina Jolie to undergo a double mastectomy. They have up to an 85 per cent risk of developing breast cancer, and up to 40 per cent risk of developing ovarian cancer, in their lifetimes.
Until now, preventive surgery - mastectomy (breasts) and oophorectomy (ovaries) - has been the only way of reducing the risk of developing both types of cancers.
The new research by Dr Kienan Savage (pictured top) and Professor Paul Harkin (bottom) at CCRCB proves there is a direct link between high levels of oestrogen and DNA damage, which causes cancer, in the breasts and ovaries. Specifically, the scientists discovered that the cells of women with the BRCA1 mutation cannot effectively fight the very high levels of oestrogen that exist in all women’s breasts and ovaries, leaving them vulnerable to DNA damage.
Dr Kienan Savage, who led the research, said: “This discovery is very significant in the management of women with the BRCA1 gene mutation. It’s the first really credible evidence that oestrogen is driving cancer in women with a BRCA1 gene mutation. Because of this discovery, we now have the opportunity to propose an alternative treatment to surgery. It also opens up the possibility of pausing treatment for a period in order for women to have children, if desired.
"What also makes this exciting is that there are drugs already on the market which turn off oestrogen production. In theory, we could use these drugs to chemically reduce oestrogen production in women which could negate the need for irreversible surgery.”
The researchers are currently seeking funding to launch clinical trials and hope to do so within 12 months. It is envisaged that, in the first instance, a small control trial will be carried out using a combination of two drugs on 12 women for a period of three months, using biopsy, blood and urine samples to track DNA damage.
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